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The Trip to Birmingham

Alex Monaghan reports back from a traditional music festival in deepest Digbeth.

Four days in Birmingham at the end of November. It doesn't sound like a dream holiday, but a sell-out crowd was attracted by this year's Tradfest. On its second run, this aspiring annual festival of Irish music is organised by a small bunch of local lads who play music but also have the skills to run a major event. Between them, they manage logistics, funding, advertising, ticket sales, technical matters, stage management and crowd control. The first Tradfest in 2014 was a surprise success, and 2015 built on this to make things even better.

The stellar line-up helped. Mike McGoldrick, the Mulcahy family, Mary Bergin, Breaking Trad, Mairtín O'Connor, Dermot Byrne and more for only £55 as an all-inclusive ticket - you can't say fairer than that, and a lot of locals bought into the festival as a result. Birmingham is excellent value for food and lodging too, which was good for visitors from all over the UK and beyond. Scotland to Somerset, Antrim to Ashford, players and listeners alike filled every venue. And they weren't disappointed. From the first notes of Karen Tweed's accordion to the last breath of Seán Keane's closing performance, the concerts were magnificent. I don't say that lightly, but I and many others were just gobsmacked by the music. Mary Bergin sparkled. The Mulcahy sisters shone, with proud dad Mick talking through a delightful hour of tunes. Donal Murphy's new trio erupted on the main stage, shorting the PA and jiggering the lights before McGoldrick's band polished off the night. Cathal Hayden, Seamie O'Dowd and Mairtín O'Connor were mighty, a phenomenal range of music - I've seen them before, of course, but this concert was like a rebirth.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was the relatively young trio of Daoirí Farrell, Robbie Walsh and Blackie O'Connell. Three less well known names supporting the main act, their music was incredible and their on-stage patter was the best of the weekend. Blackie is a phenomenal piper and he played everything from slow airs to speed-junkie reels, with full regulator accompaniment and a bass drone that could fly black ops for Putin. Walsh drums like a man possessed and threw more party pieces into his solo than you could shake a stick at. As for Daoirí, whether accompanied or fully exposed, the man has a voice that can fill a hall and send shivers down your spine in the back row.

Young and old, to match the audience. Mairtín’s grizzled visage was mirrored by plenty of grey-beards, nodding wisely, or perhaps out past their bedtimes. Cathal's debonair middle-aged gravitas was matched by a sizeable fraction of the onlookers, myself included, while Seamie's "too cool for school" image probably seemed elderly to the young crowd. Things were even more mixed in the late night Festival Club gigs featuring Damien O'Kane and Damien Mullane, both great young talents but only Mullane came close in age to the college kids and child prodigies who filed into an upstairs bar to be deafened and delighted by the latest groovy sounds from the Emerald Isle. Big boots, skimpy frocks, hipster beards and footballer hairstyles - and that was just the girls, who incidentally included more redheads than you could hit with a flamethrower. One notable fashion icon was singer Georgia Lewis, but even she was outdone by the stylish Louise Mulcahy and Noreen Cullen.

For those of us who go out in the daylight, there were plenty of less formal events, mostly free to the public. Sessions, of course, in the numerous Irish pubs across Digbeth: the Spotted Dog and the enigmatically named Big Bull's Head are perhaps the best known, but there were plenty more. Sessions were packed, with all levels of ability from superstar to scraping by. Apparently one session became an Eb showcase, but all those I attended were welcoming and accessible. Too accessible at times: I had to break up one brawl right at my feet as I was playing along with a nice set of Cooley reels. That incident brought the session to an early end at around 3am.

One of the most enjoyable and relaxed events was a five-fold album launch, a nice example of the range of music drawn to Birmingham for Tradfest. Karen Tweed and Adrian Burns launched a remastered version of their legendary bootleg tape from 30 years ago, cleaned up and digitised but still as raw and as relevant today. Patsy Moloney, an Irishman through and through but a long-time resident of Birmingham, launched a new solo flute CD, his second album in a very short time - pure unfiltered traditional music played by a master. Brid Harper, a great fiddler from Ulster, played a few sets from her fabulous and long overdue debut CD released earlier in 2015 - a rare chance to hear her in the UK and a real eye-opener for those unfamiliar with her music. Claire Egan, a young London Irish fiddler with connections to Birmingham, also played a few selections from her new debut CD - delicate, flowing, graceful music. Finally, The London Lasses (and Chris O'Malley) filled the small stage with their new line-up for a few tunes - excellent music expertly arranged and my first chance to hear the band with concertina ace Brogan McAuliffe who had taken the day off school to be with them!

Why Birmingham? Well, why not? While it's not as well known for Irish culture as London, Liverpool or Manchester, Birmingham has had a large Irish population since shortly after WWII, and may even have a larger proportion of native Irish people than any other English city. Young Irish men and women came for jobs in construction and in the factories, and stayed to raise families. Digbeth has been the heart of the Birmingham Irish community for decades, and its teachers and sessions produced such stars as John and Catherine McEvoy, Kevin Crawford (not at Tradfest this year), and other former stalwarts of the great Birmingham Céilí Band such as the Molloy, Jordan and Lawrie families. There was a time a few years back when Irish music in Birmingham was dwindling, when it was hard to find a session or a concert, but times seem to have changed again. The newly refurbished Irish Centre is buzzing, the Irish pubs are thriving, the sessions are full of fine young musicians, and this nucleus of local talent is enough to pull in people from far and wide. I spoke to teens and pre-teens from Birmingham who said they prefer traditional music to "normal" music. I met strangers - now friends - who had come to Birmingham because they couldn’t get to Ennis. I sat in packed concert halls, and struggled for a seat in sessions, with Brummies and Mancs and Geordies and more than a few Irish visitors.

Complaints were few, barring sore heads in the mornings, and smiles were plentiful. So make a date with Tradfest in 2016. Apparently Birmingham has shops and great restaurants too, but there was no time to go looking for those with so much good music to enjoy.